UC Berkeley agrofuel: A dream built on deception?

Back when agrofuel entrepreneur Chris Somerville was selling the BP-funded half-billion-dollar agrofuel program to UC Berkeley colleagues, the Monsanto-made millionaire claimed the goal was producing enough fuel to power the nation using only the country’s marginal farmlands.

Wrong, according to stunning research from Tad Patzek, who was one of the leading campus critics of the BP project and who now chairs the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering and the University of Texas, Austin.

Consider this abstract from a paper he’s just published in the journal Sustainability [pdf warning]:

The switchgrass-driven process for producing ethanol has received much popular attention. However, a realistic analysis of this process indicates three serious limitations: (a) If switchgrass planted on 140 million hectares (the entire area of active U.S. cropland) were used as feedstock and energy source for ethanol production, the net ethanol yield would replace on average about 20% of today’s gasoline consumption in the U.S. (b) Because nonrenewable resources are required to produce ethanol from switchgrass, the incremental gas emissions would be on average 55 million tons of equivalent carbon dioxide per year to replace just 10% of U.S. automotive gasoline. (c) In terms of delivering electrical or mechanical power, ethanol from 1 hectare (10,000 m2) of switchgrass is equivalent, on average, to 30 m2 of low-efficiency photovoltaic cells. This analysis suggests that investing toward more efficient and durable solar cells, and batteries, may be more promising than investing in a process to convert switchgrass to ethanol.

The 36-page paper, titled “A Probabilistic Analysis of the Switchgrass Ethanol Cycle,” is a brilliant dissection of the claims of Somerville and his allies who have promised a plant-powered pancea for all our future transportation fuel needs.

Both of Berkeley’s leading agrofuel boosters have made small fortunes off what looks like a swelling agrofuel bubble, most recently Somerville’s colleague Jay Keasling, whose share of the initial public offering of Amyris, Inc., stock just added eight figures to his net worth [not bad for a former wrestler from a Nebraska farm town].

The agrofuel boom is being driven by a Pentagon worried that our Predator-and-troop-backed foreign policy adventures in the Mideast and Latin America could lead angry targeted nations to cut off our fuel supplies, just as Pakistan temporarily shut off deliveries to the Coalition of the Increasingly Unwilling in Afghanistan.

Despite all the hooplah surrounding agrofuels, Patzek’s paper makes clear that the process of turning plants into fuel is a costly one, in terms of money, resources, and land.

Then there’s the basic problem of physics, which he deftly summarizes in his concluding sentences:

The law of energy conservation requires that a switchgrass ethanol refinery has a highly negative difference of output energy—input energy, or net-energy value (NEV), as shown previously. . . This statement follows directly from the observation that the switchgrass-ethanol process has a low energy efficiency and requires large external inputs of energy-intensive chemicals, heat, and electricity. Whether or not nonrenewable energy is used for biorefinery energy needs, NEV < 0.

The industrial switchgrass plantations considered here are sun-driven, man-made “machines,” whose ultimate output is shaft work used for generation of electricity or rotation of car wheels. These vast and complex machines should be compared against two other, much simpler devices that also convert solar energy into shaft work: solar photovoltaic (PV) cells (and electricity from thermal solar) and wind turbines. PV cells (whenever their panel areas measured in km2 become commercially available) convert solar energy directly into electricity, the most valuable form of free energy, that can be further converted into mechanical work with small losses. Wind turbines produce electricity from the kinetic energy of the sun-driven wind, and are not discussed here. All biofuel-producing systems should be judged on their ability to generate shaft work, not merely a biofuel. PV cell, thermal solar, and battery R&D, as well as a large-scale implementation of already existing PV cell manufacturing technologies, could have a much larger impact on both near- and long-term energy security of the U.S. and Europe than biofuels.

A closer look at one UCB-spawned company, Amyris

A second report released last week took a close look at Keasling’s Amyris. Here’s the announcement of the 48-page document:

The environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth released a report . . .warning policymakers of the dangers of misguided attempts by the biotechnology industry to apply synthetic biology to the climate crisis, including the production of synthetic biofuels.

The report, titled “Synthetic Solutions to the Climate Crisis: The Dangers of Synthetic Biology for Biofuels Production,” concludes that synthetic biology projects including the creation of algae with synthetic DNA to produce fuels or synthetic yeast to break down biomass could have potentially devastating results if these organisms were released into the environment. For example, synthetic algae released into the ocean could grow rapidly, depleting oxygen levels, choking other life, and creating large dead zones.

Friends of the Earth Biotechnology Policy Campaigner Eric Hoffman had the following comment:

“This is uncharted territory, but we know that in the past, Monsanto

and other corporations have promised that genetically modified crops would not spread and cross pollinate, and these claims proved false. We are now being asked to believe a similar promise, but the stakes are even higher. Synthetic microbes have no natural predators, and if they escape they may disrupt ecosystems and harm public health. Our report concludes thatthe federal government should put a complete moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms. All possible implications of this synthetic biology research, including environmental, economic, social, and public health risks, must be reviewed by regulators.”

“In addition, we have found that despite the industry’s claims, synthetic biofuels will not be a solution to the climate crisis. Any efficiency gains in the production process are likely to be offset by the fact that synthetic biology would lead to more materials being turned into biofuels. This would increase   the environmental damage—including deforestation and emissions of heat-trapping gases—and social ills caused by biofuel crop cultivation.”

The full report [pdf warning] is here.

Friends of the Earth on Amyris, Inc.

Because of local interest here in Berkeley, we’ll quote the section on Amyris at length:

Amyris Biotechnologies was founded in 2003 by Jay Keasling. Dr. Keasling serves as the Deputy Laboratory Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute and a professor of chemical and bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley. A leader in the emerging field of synthetic biology, Keasling first gained notoriety for his production of arteminisic acid – a precursor to the important anti-malarial medicine arteminisin – through the creation of E. coli with synthetic DNA. Unlike traditional genetic engineering that often transfers one or two genes, this process transfers at least 14 genes into the bacteria, one of which was synthetic amorphadiene syntase.

With the help of $43 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit partnership was established between Amyris, the Gates Foundation, and the Institute for OneWorld Health to scale-up and eventually commercialize synthetic arteminisin production. Arteminisic acid is traditionally found in the sweet wormwood plant, Artemisia annua, but natural production levels are low and cannot currently meet current world demand.

While the desire to produce affordable anti-malarial drugs is laudable, it is important to note that thousands of farmers throughout Africa and Asia depend on the natural production of arteminisin. Instead of promoting the growth of these markets, which would bring a sustainable source of income to thousands of the world’s poor, the Gates Foundation has instead decided to fund an American corporation, in a sense ignoring innovative approaches to sweet wormwood production that empower the world’s poor and are already being utilized. For example, Anamed (Action for Natural Medicine) is promoting sustainable artiminisin production with “artemisia starter-kits” that include seeds and instructions on how to plant, harvest, and use the plant to create an anti-malarial tea in places where other medicine is unavailable. The Anamed Artemisia Programme includes more than 1,000 people in more than 75 countries.

As the above story exemplifies, there are often low-cost, low-tech solutions to many of the problems being addressed by synthetic biology without the risks of social upheaval and environmental degradation. Amyris’ biofuels production will have similar socio-economic effects that will lead to environmental degradation and disempowerment of local communities.

Since Amyris would not make money from its non-profit arteminisin endeavor they had to look for a new application of their technology. Keasling had been involved in energy production research for some time at the Joint BioEnergy Institute and is close to Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy who was his predecessor at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, so biofuels production was a logical source of profit for Amyris.

Amyris is using similar synthetic biology methods to create biofuels as they did for anti-malarial medication. This technology is based on the creation of synthetic pathways that lead to the production of isoprenoids – molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications. Using yeast with synthetic DNA, Amyris claims they are able to convert plant-based feedstocks into 50,000 different isoprenoids. The image to the right, from Amyris, shows how this process is being used for fuel production.

Instead of creating alcohols such as ethanol, which cannot be used in pipes or other infrastructures since it is too corrosive, their yeasts are able to turn sugar into combustible hydrocarbons that resemble diesel fuel, gasoline, and jet fuel and can therefore be used in traditional engines.

Amyris’ feedstock of choice is sugarcane. To guarantee a long-term supply, Amyris started creating partnerships in the world’s largest sugarcane producing country — Brazil. They also opened a fully-owned subsidiary, Amyris Brazil, in Campinas, São Paulo, near Brazil’s cane processing industry.

In 2008, Amyris and Crystalsev, of Brazil’s largest ethanol distributors and marketers, created a joint venture “Amyris-Crystalsev.” This venture named Brazil’s former Minister of Agriculture Roberto Rodrigues to its Strategic Advisory Board. In December of 2009 the company bought a 40 percent stake in Sao Martinho Group’s (one of the largest sugar and ethanol producers in Brazil) Boa Vista mill to process sugar cane. A few days later they announced deals with Bunge, an international food conglomerate who processes and trades sugarcane in Brazil, Cosan Guarani, a subsidiary of the French sugar corporation Tereos and Brazilian-based Açúcar Guarani, which cultivates and processes sugarcane. Amyris has also partnered with Brazilian sugarcane company Canavialis, which was bought by Monsanto in 2008, to produce jet fuels for the U.S. Department of Defense from sugarcane grown in Alabama.

These agreements would allow Amyris to build “bolt-on” facilities attached to their current ethanol plants to produce Amyris’ fuels. According to Amyris’ filing for Initial Public Offering with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, they “expect these arrangements to provide [them] with access to over ten million tons of sugarcane crush capacity annually, which [they] intend to expand over time with these and other mills.” Amyris also licensed its propriety technology to Santa Elisa, the second largest ethanol producer in the country.

To scale-up their fuel production capabilities Amyris received help from experts in the field. They hired the former President of U.S. Fuel Operations for BP, John Melo, as their Chief Executive Officer. Ralph Alexander — formerly the CEO of BP’s Gas, Power and Renewables and Solar segment and a member of the BP executive group — was brought on board as the Chair of Amyris’ Board of Directors. BP also gave $500 million to UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to develop biofuels through synthetic biology — both with ties to Jay Keasling and his biotech start-up.

The Problem:

Amyris claims that their product will be “a perfect renewable fuel” that can reduce “lifecycle [greenhouse gas] emissions of 80 percent or more compared to petroleum fuels.” While it is unclear where Amyris gets its calculations from, it is known that most studies on the environmental impact of biofuels do not take into account the mode of production for the feedstocks and it is likely that Amyris did not look into the emissions from industrial sugarcane production. As Time Magazine has noted in reviews of general biofuels impacts, “it is as if these scientists image that biofuels are cultivated in parking lots.”But unfortunately sugarcane cannot be grown in parking lots and requires nutrient-rich soils and large amounts of land and water to be grown.

What we do know is that sugarcane production in Brazil is far from sustainable and the recent increase in demand for biofuels is accelerating deforestation, soil degradation, water contamination, destruction of native vegetation, and increasing atmospheric pollution from sugar cane fires — particularly in the Cerrado. The Cerrado (a savannah) is home to nearly 160,000 species of plants and animals, many of which are endangered. According to a 2008 report by Maria Luisa Mendonça, nearly 22,000 square kilometers of savannah are cleared every year. Estimates claim that over half of the region has already been devastated, and at this rate it will be completely destroyed by the year 2030.

Despite this fact, the Brazilian government has targeted the Cerrado as a location for new biofuels plants — including the Boa Vista Mill that Amyris partially owns. Due to the Cerrado’s flatness, soil quality, and access to water, it is an ideal location for sugar cane production is the only region the government allows sugarcane to even be planted. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics has shown that in 2007, sugarcane production occupied about 5.8 million hectares of the Cerrado.

To plant sugarcane, all native plants and trees must be uprooted, affecting not just the environment but local communities. As one report from the Society, Population, and Nature Institute (ISPN) has noted, deforestation for sugarcane production “directly harms rural populations who survive off the biodiversity of the Cerrado. The other terminal consequence is that small food farmers leave their lands, having been lured into temporary employment in the sugarcane fields. This will diminish the food production in the area, which only serves to aggravate the migration to urban slums.”

Sugarcane production for biofuels is accelerating deforestation, water contami-nation, and increasing atmo-spheric pollution.

Brazil’s monoculture sugarcane production has other environmental impacts outside of land-use changes. Eighty percent of Brazil’s sugarcane crops are set on fire to reduce cane straw, making manual harvesting and transportation easier. Smoke from these fires has been shown to harm nearby communities and native animals. Sugarcane plantations require an incredible amount of water and often divert local rivers away from communities and farmers growing food. They have also led to increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.The sugar plantation industry also has a dark history of slave labor and worker exploitation that it has yet to eliminate.

Amyris will need an incredible amount of sugarcane to compete against oil, gas, and ethanol production. Amyris’ pilot project in California produced 2.4 million gallons of fuel at annual capacity. They plan to make 200 million gallons of synthetic biofuels a year by 2011. The needed feedstock to produce at this capacity does not grow on parking lots but rather on priceless land that is home to diverse life. Further, the spread of sugarcane production is pushing other forms of agriculture deeper into previously forested lands such as the Amazon. While the direct emissions from Amyris’ fuel might be less than burning traditional fossil fuels, when we take these other environmental effects into account the picture begins to look much less green.

The report also includes this on Keasling’s former boss at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and his funding of Keasling’s public-sector agrofuel venture, JBEI, which is located upstairs in the same Emeryville building which houses Keasling’s private sector Amyris:

Secretary Steven Chu has been a leading proponent of synthetic biology. As head of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, Secretary Chu advocated for using synthetic biology to create brand new organisms based on the microbes normally found in the guts of termites to produce ethanol from cellulose.

In Secretary Chu’s first year in charge of the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department spent more than $305 million on synthetic biology research and a similar amount is expected to be spent in 2010. Most of this research funded by the DOE is done out of the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI), a six-institution partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A report from the Synthetic Biology Project out of the Wilson Center has shown that the U.S. government has spent more than $430 million on synthetic biology research since 2005. Only 4 percent of this has been used to research the ethical, legal, and social implications of synthetic biology. The report did not show the amount of funding going to assess environmental risks, most likely since no funding is being put towards this purpose.

Finally, there are two additional points to be considered: First the nation’s vanishing water supplies, and, second is the “marginal land” Somerville touted as the place to plant all those crops.

The Ogallala Aquifer, the source of most of the irrigation water for the Midwest Grain Belt, is being pumped dry, just as is the Central Valley Aquifer in California. While switchgrass and miscanthus boosters claim the crop will need little or no irrigation water, their claims remain, as yet, unproven and questionable in light of the vast amounts of fuel they promise.

Somerville’s oft-repeated claim that the country could meet its fuel supplies from marginal farmland “east of the Mississippi” fails to note one critical fact: The land of which he speaks was set aside by the Department of Agriculture in its Conservation Reserve Program.

CRP land was “banked” and farmers were paid subsidies not to plant it because it is the most easily eroded farmland in the United States, intentionally taken out of production to prevent another catastrophic era of “Dust Bowl” years such as the nation witnessed during the Depression, the years farmers in our youth called “the Dirty Thirites” because of the massive dust storms thrown up by winds sweeping over the plains.

Then consider that most of the actual production resulting from the Berkeley projects, the ones designed to make the nation energy self-sufficient, are taking place in the Global South, that half of the globe still struggling to recover from the impacts of earlier northern colonization.

Then there’s the economic reality. As noted previously, Amyris has found is costs of fuel production significantly higher than originally estimated, leading the company to divert production once promised for fuels to the more profitable cosmetics and aroma sectors.

But the hype hasn’t ceased, and the stocks are selling.

So we’ll leave it to Bette Davis to sum up:


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